Crater cowards commiserate in a bomb-proof, while their troops are staging for an assault and the result is confusion, panic, murder and at least two Union General’s shame. The Seige of Petersburg in the summer of 1864, had turned into a stalemate of miserable trench warfare, stifling heat and no water. Almost the entire cast of Union Eastern military leadership was present, Grant, Meade, Burnside and all of their subordinates, competent or not. The Union forces outnumbered the Confederates, at least two to one, but the Rebel works surrounding Petersburg, constructed in 1862, were beyond formidable and the rag-tag, young and old defenders had recently been reinforced by General P.G.T. Beauregard. United States Colored Troops had joined the siege and were basically deployed digging trenches, redoubts, covered roads and communication routes. These black troopers were aching to show their prowess and were being trained for a special mission by a professional dance instructor, turned General, Edward Ferrero. Another General, James H. Ledlie, a civil engineer, was in command of a unit that was charged with support of Ferrero’s Troopers. Both, ended up as Crater cowards commiserating their lot, sheltering and drinking rum, while their commands met doom, attempting to pierce the Confederate line.
A mining engineer, from Pennsylvania, Lt. Colonel Pleasants, reporting to General Burnside, developed a plan, to tunnel under the Confederate line, place an enormous charge of gun powder at the end of the mine and explode the charge, breaching and killing all of the surrounding defenders. Burnside approved the plan, Meade and Grant also thought it might break the siege, so Pleasants and his fellow Pennsylvania miners began the task. General Grant had attempted a similar mining fiasco at Vicksburg, with few if any positive results, however both Grant and Meade felt if nothing else it would keep the troopers busy.
Ferrero’s USCT were selected to lead the attack on the Crater and were trained to skirt both edges after the blast, penetrating the Confederate rear, advancing right and left. Ledlie’s command was to follow and support Ferrero, assuring the breakthrough and crushing the Confederate center. All advancing forces were to follow the lead of the USCT and avoid entering the Crater, created by the explosion.
As the hour of the detonation loomed, Meade began to have second thoughts. General Meade felt that if the untried USCT failed, the public and press would vilify his command for a useless slaughter. In addition, he might not have had any confidence in the USCT ability to succeed. Grant supported Meade’s conclusion and General Burnside was ordered to select another command to endeavor the assault. Burnside selected three of his commanders to draw straws and Ledlie lost, his command would be the first units to force the breach created at the Crater. General James H. Ledlie, never briefed his officers regarding the battle plan or tactics, he just crawled into his bomb-proof to await the engagements outcome.
General Edward Ferrero’s, whose troops had been trained for the initial assault, were confused regarding their role in the attack and milled about with little direction, while Ferrero joined Ledlie in the dug out to share a bottle of rum, safe from the pending blast.
The explosion shook the earth, bodies, arms, legs, heads, cannon, dirt, smoke and fire filled the air. The Confederate line had been obliterated, leaving a huge gap in the defenses and an even greater Crater in the Rebel center. General Ledlie’s forces advanced rapidly into the breach, up and over the rim of the smoking Crater and like lemmings, followed each other into the bottom of the abyss. Some positioned themselves on the rim, others just milled around in the base of the pit. It was the USCT turn to fight and on the run they followed Ledlie’s legions. Some advanced around the Crater like they had trained, others took refuge with their white comrades in the huge hole. There really was no more room in the Crater, so additional reinforcements squeezed forward occupying the vacant Confederate intrenchments. Meanwhile, the Rebels, recovering from the blast, plugged the gap in their line and maneuvered additional troops from other positions and slowly retook the trenches and surrounded the Crater in their front. The Confederate troops were appalled at the sight and prospect of battling the black soldiers, some in hand to hand combat. Many of the USCT were shot, bayoneted or clubbed down while trying to surrender, some of their white comrades suffered the same fate. Racial atrocities were rampant and the carnage at the Crater grew to unbelievable proportions. The Federal’s in the bottom, of the hole of death, had little recourse, but inevitable surrender or death. The Confederates eventually retook their original line and captured hundreds of black and white prisoners, marching the detainees through the streets of Petersburg, to either imprisonment, torture or death.
Meanwhile, back at the bomb-proof, impaired General’s Ledlie and Ferrero learned of the massacre and attempted to shift the blame to Burnside and Meade. Neither was in any shape to mount a defense, resulting in Ledlie being charged with dereliction of duty and cashiered and Burnside being relieved of command, never to return. General Ferrero was censured and eventually promoted to Brigadier General for “heroic and meritorious service”?
General Grant wrote Halleck regarding the debacle,”It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in this war.”
While the brave United States Colored Troops and their white comrades fought valiantly, the dance instructor and the civil engineer became known as Crater Cowards.
For a more informed and historic account of this battle and its racial impact, Bummer recommends, acclaimed Educator and Historian, Kevin M. Levin’s dynamic book;
“Remembering The Battle Of The Crater, War As Murder”